A handful of companies now dominate world farming, with profound implications for genetic diversity
Sue Branford The Guardian, February 6 2008
A couple of years ago I visited a small cooperative in the south of Brazil which was rearing chickens for Sadia, Brazil's largest poultry producer. Pointing to the tens of thousands of chicks crowded together in a battery, one of the co-op members, Oney Zamarchi, said they reared the chickens just as the company decreed, even poking the chicks day and night to keep them awake and eating all the time. When the chickens reached 45 days old, they were big enough to be slaughtered - some were so fat they couldn't stand - and were sent to the slaughterhouse. A colleague visiting a poultry farm in Thailand a few months later described an identical process. But how could this synonymous operation be happening in different parts of the world?
The answer lies in the fact that a handful of poultry breeders now control the chicken industry. They have been instrumental in the creation of a few types of chicken that have the characteristics that global supermarkets require: they grow quickly and have a lot of tender white meat. The breeders supply tens of thousands of poultry companies throughout the world with the genetic material, the DNA, of the animals. One German company, Erich Wesjohann Grupp, supplies the genetic stock for an estimated 68% of all the world's white-egg layer hens, and a Dutch company (Hendrix Genetics) provides a similar proportion of the stock for brown-egg layer hens. Poultry companies then furnish this material to 'multipliers', who produce tens of thousands of chicks. It is these chicks that go to the farmers to be fattened.
This technological revolution in poultry farming has occurred at a time of other far-reaching changes. New intensive methods of agriculture have made it possible for farmers to produce massive soya and maize harvests. This, in turn, has allowed the production of millions of tonnes of concentrated chicken feed, which is needed to rear poultry in confined spaces. Meanwhile, market reforms, backed by the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, have ruined hundreds of thousands of smallholders in the developing world, forcing peasant farmers - such as Zamarchi - to sacrifice their independence and sign contracts with the poultry companies.
Taken together, these changes have meant that the poultry companies can provide supermarkets throughout the world with huge quantities of cheap chicken. And lower prices and intensive advertising campaigns mean people are eating far more of it.
Developing countries have become the leading worldwide suppliers of this cheap chicken because land and labour cost less. Brazil is the world's leading exporter - the industry, which is still growing, already employs some 4 million people. As the agricultural frontier marches north into the Amazon basin, the poultry industry - with its feed production plants, hatcheries, slaughterhouses and processing plants - is following in its wake. It is possible that some of the chickens consumed in the UK have been reared on land that just a generation ago was tropical forest.
These changes are not only confined to the poultry industry, however. Cattle and pig rearing are also experiencing rapid change - although on a smaller scale. A rapid process of concentration has occurred, with the breeders becoming integrated with the meat processors, creating agro-industial giants. Today, just as a handful of companies supply the genetic material for poultry, increasingly other big groups control the material for pigs, cattle and fish.
Agro-giants have realised that the same principles of gene technology can be applied across a broad spectrum of farming, both livestock and arable. It makes sense, they say, for a single vast group to operate in all sectors. So a new form of horizontal concentration is under way. After a series of takeovers, a new gene giant, headed by the UK's Genus plc, has brought together the largest breeding companies in the cattle, pig and aquaculture sectors.
Monsanto, the US company that dominates the genetic modification of seeds, has moved into swine genetics. Within a few years, a tiny group of huge companies will almost certainly control the genetics of all commercial farming, from Argentina's soya plantations to Thailand's poultry farms and Canada's wheat prairies. With the support of a rigid system of patenting, these gene giants will be the new lords of global farming.
Other more significant processes are gaining momentum. The agro-giants that have emerged are confident that, despite current consumer resistance, gene technology will dominate global livestock farming in the near future. A transgenic salmon that takes half the normal time to grow will probably be launched on the US market next year. Avigenics, a US pharmaceutical company, has been producing genetically engineered chickens for more than four years, though none has yet been marketed. And we will soon be eating meat from cloned animals, since the EU has announced that no special approval procedures are necessary.
Does this matter to us, the consumers? Yes, because some of the consequences are serious and unplanned. Local animal breeds throughout the world, which are of no interest to the big companies, are becoming extinct, to the tune of one breed a month. Many of these animals are resistant to disease and able to survive on little food and water, characteristics that will be needed as the world moves into an era of unprecedented climatic change.
Genetic breeds are less hardy and the genetic uniformity of industrial livestock creates the perfect breeding ground for the evolution of highly pathogenic strains of disease. Outbreaks of porcine reproductive and respiratory syndrome in pigs is already occurring, for example, as well as avian flu. The official response to these outbreaks is almost always to ban freerange livestock, with the argument that tighter biosafety measures are required. So, the big companies, which created the conditions for disease in the first place, end up profiting from it, because competitors are forced out of business.
What is particularly scary is the likelihood that one of these diseases will mutate into a deadly human disease. The authorities should be insisting on wholesale changes in the way that industrial farming is organised but, instead, they are taking measures that deepen the structural problems.
· Sue Branford helped edit a study of livestock farming published in the January edition of Seedling, a magazine produced by Grain.